“ON MY MARK. ADVANCE!”
I walked at a steady pace. The guy on my right, who I only just met minutes before, thumped a hardwood police club on his shield. The entire line of 50 men and women took up the rhythm as we moved forward as one.
BANG. BANG. BANG. The clubs made a racket which was intended to intimidate. What I could see through the smoke were mostly students. Black and white kids, all at the White House to protest the killing of George Floyd last week.
The guy on my left was built like a fireplug. He smiled at me as we were placed in position. “This is gonna be fun, Harris!”
CRACK! From somewhere far to the right, a cop fired a rubber bullet. With the protesters running helter-skelter, it was impossible to see who was getting shot.
“Get the looters!” Fireplug yelled. “Take out the motherfuckers!”
We moved forward another 20 yards in the direction of St. John’s church. As far as I knew, we were supposed to clear the area so the President could survey the damage that rioters had done during the last three days of protests.
A scrawny black teenager emerged from the smoke and looked me straight in the eyes. “Put the club down and join us!” he yelled. The cop on my right swung his weapon and struck a glancing blow on the boy’s shoulder. Without stopping, the teenager ran into the smoke and disappeared.
As we proceeded forward, I wondered, how in the hell did I get here? I was a middle-class dude from Michigan. I’d been a hockey star at Powers, and then made second-team All-American at Ferris. After graduating with a degree in Criminal Justice, I did a stint with the Genesee county Sheriff’s office before landing my current gig with the CBP, which is short for Customs and Border Protection. I generally worked at the border crossing between Michigan and Canada in Port Huron. The job can be a grind but the pay is excellent. I spend most of my time picking thorough other people’s crap while I inspect their vehicle. So when I was asked by my Sergeant if I wanted to do some special duty, I jumped at the chance. So here I am now in D.C, standing elbow to elbow with a bunch of people I barely knew.
We approached a cement wall and my line split. As we reached the end of the wall, Fireplug began wailing on a guy with a camera. He swung his shield like a weapon, repeatedly striking the photographer. Without thinking, I reached out and pulled Fireplug off.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled. “He wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Fireplug turned to take a swing at me, but pulled his punch at the last second. Just then, another cop struck the cameraman’s assistant as they tried to run for cover.
In the fog of battle, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly what’s going on. We were outfitted in body armor, helmets, and goggles, but due to our hasty assembly, we weren’t issued radios. Hell, some of the cops wore t-shirts under their armor. Like a lot of guys, I wore green camo. None of us carried badges or any form of visible ID. I knew from the get-go that this was a sketchy operation, but I was carried by momentum by a force that was beyond my control.
As we approached the church, a woman, dressed in what looked like a priest’s outfit, stood with her hands raised, yelling, “PLEASE STOP! IN THE NAME OF GOD, ST..”
Before she could finish, she collapsed to the concrete as a rubber round struck her in the center of her chest.
Finally, we reached the church and regrouped. The cops near me cheered as if they’d won a huge battle. Shit, the whole thing lasted something like two minutes. I remained silent as I looked back upon the carnage that lay before us. D.C. police and other Feds were handcuffing the protesters and dragging them off to God knows where. The priest lady managed to recover enough to get on her knees. Another protester, a tall black dude, lifted the woman and took her away, hopefully to somewhere safe.
“Clear the way!” A sergeant split our line in half and sent each side at least 50 yards away to the east and west.
“What’s goin’ on?” I asked Fireplug.
“It’s the President! He’s comin’ out to the church.” Fireplug had a look of absolute joy upon his face – it was like he was meeting Santa Claus for the first time.
From where I stood, I could see a line of old white guys and one young skinny white chick approach the church. Cameras flashed as the President held up a bible.
Sonofabitch. We just beat up a bunch of innocent people for a fuckin’ photo op.
I come from a long line of Republicans. My old man had been a honcho for GM. He was lucky to keep his job after the automaker left Flint and headed downstate. Even though he had to endure a miserable two-hour round-trip commute each day, he rarely complained. Mom didn’t work anywhere full-time, but she volunteered for local G.O.P. candidates during elections.
I was still in High School when Obama was elected, but like most teenage boys I ignored politics. All I cared about was hockey and girls. One of my pals, Chuck Upton (we called him UpChuck because he always barfed after getting drunk) drove a huge black diesel pickup. He was proud of the truck, which he’d paid for by doing car clean-up at Hank Graff Chevrolet. But he was even prouder of the huge Confederate flag that was attached to the rear of his vehicle.
I saw UpChuck a while back, and he was still driving that truck. Only thing was now he’d added a MAGA flag next to the stars and bars.
My folks were proud as hell when I graduated with my degree. They believed first in God, but law and order were almost as important to them as religion. “Colt,” my mom would say. “Make sure you vote for our candidates in November.”
I never gave much thought to the folks who weren’t committed to the conservative mindset. Those people didn’t matter to me.
But I started to wonder if the party was on the right path around the end of April. You know, after COVID-19 hit.
On a normal day, about 15,000 vehicles cross the Blue Water Bridge, which connects Port Huron, Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario. But after COVID, Canada closed the border to all non-essential travel. The usual constant daily mass of cars, tractor-trailers, service vehicles, and RV’s diminished to a trickle. No one in my CPB unit was laid off, but we were expected to use our vacation time and take unpaid days off.
At first, it seemed like a nice break from the grind. But when you can’t go anywhere due to the Governor’s state-wide quarantine, life becomes boring as hell. It got so that all I did on my days off was sit around and look at shit on my phone.
My Twitter feed, long unused, soon became populated with tweets from people that I admired. Tucker, Laura Ingraham, the President…
For a while it looked as if the whole COVID thing was a big non-event. I didn’t know anyone who became infected and died, so what’s the big deal? It wasn’t even as bad as the flu.
One day while I was back on the job, I searched through the trunk of a lovely Canadian doctor who was heading back to Toronto after helping out at Detroit Mercy. Her car wasn’t suspicious or anything, but I had an arrangement with one of my pals. Hot ladies who came through his station were randomly sent to me for further inspection. I did the same for him when I worked in the booth.
“What were you doin’ in Michigan, Ma’am?” I looked at her closely, imagining how pretty her mouth was under the facemask she wore.
She looked at me with a look that somehow telegraphed suspicion and boredom. “I’m a anesthesiologist. I spent the last four weeks working 12-hour days in an ICU, intubating COVID-19 patients.”
I looked at her with a look of disbelief. “You mean, you were putting people on ventilators?”
“Yeah. I averaged 20 people daily, after we finally got enough equipment together. When I ended my final shift yesterday, we still didn’t have half of the PPE we required.”
“Really? I heard that the hospitals had plenty of equipment.”
“You need to get your news somewhere else,” she answered with a hint of snark.
It was obvious that we weren’t destined to become friends, so I sent her on her way. But during the next weeks I began to read stories about how hard the health care people were working to keep people from dying. The number of dead in the US went from 20,000 to 80,000 in less than a month. We went over 100,000 just before George Floyd was killed.
“Officer Harris, please come in.” I was in the office of the guy who coordinated my CBP team while we were stationed in D.C. He gestured at a chair. “Go ahead and take a seat.”
He was the sort of guy you saw in the movies that ran shit behind the scenes. An “operator.” My guess was he probably worked for the NSA or FBI.
Sitting at his desk, he rifled through a thin pile of paperwork. Without looking at me, he said, “Your actions last night were commendable.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, since I didn’t do a whole lot that night except maybe keep a photographer from being beat to shit. This desk jockey had no idea what really went on out there.
Before I could formulate a response that wouldn’t get me kicked off the squad, he continued. “I’m keeping you around for a few weeks to help out with the situation here. I’ll notify Port Huron.”
When I didn’t answer right away, he looked up and said, “That’s unless you have somewhere better to be.”
“Good. Glad to have you on the team.”
We were given billets in a hotel downtown. Holiday Inn. As I rode the elevator to my room, one of the other CBP guys looked at me and said, “Shit, after what we did last night, I thought they’d put us up in the President’s hotel.”
“Nah,” I answered. “We’re just the lackeys who are doing the heavy lifting. Only the rich assholes get to stay there.”
We were all allowed a couple of hours of downtime, so I watched FOX News and took a nap. As I dozed off, I heard someone on the TV say, “The President displayed exactly the strength he was elected for last night.”
Later that afternoon I found myself in a van being driven back to the area where we were the night before. Fireplug, my faithful companion, sat next to me. “They call it Layfayette Square.”
“Huh?” I grunted. I was lost in thought and hadn’t been paying attention.
“We were at Layfayett Square last night.”
Another CPB officer asked, “Why’d they name it after a French dude?”’
“Ever heard of Wikipedia?” Fireplug laughed. “Look it up yourself.
At the Square, we took up positions around the perimeter of the White House. I found myself in a nice green space, where few protesters mulled about. Most were on the street directly in front of the White House. My job was to stand at attention and watch out for insurrectionists.
Time seemed to stand still for me. With all of the action well away from my position, I fell into a sort of day-dreamy trance.
“Hey Soldier Boy,” someone said. “Whatcha up to?”
Shaking the cobwebs out of my head, my eyes focused upon a middle-aged black woman who sat on a bicycle.
“You here to beat up more of us black folks?” she taunted.
She began to move on, but stopped and looked back at me. “You ever hear of Brownshirts? No? Look it up.”
I stood quietly that evening, thinking about what she said and what I’d do if another riot broke out.
Back at the hotel, I looked up “Browshirts” on Wikipedia. Shit, the woman was right. Brownshirts were a paramilitary unit that was used to harass and arrest the Jews in Germany back in the 1930’s. It didn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to see why my outfit would be considered to be cut from the same cloth.
The next two evenings were quiet. I stood my watch without incident, thinking about my place in this series of events. Was I a pawn in a power struggle that I didn’t understand? I didn’t go to college to end up being a tool used for political gain.
The President claimed that his “show of strength” quelled the riots. I wondered about that statement – since no one was rioting until they began getting shot with rubber bullets and gassed with pepper bombs. But during the morning of the third day, a huge fence was constructed around the entire White House. Since there was already a fence, this new one seemed redundant to me.
I saw a sign that read, “The President finally got his wall.”
The weekend approached, but there was no indication that the protests would stop. I didn’t tell anyone what I was thinking, but I’d worked it out that the blacks were pissed that so many of their people were getting killed by police brutality. I get that. But add the whole COVID-19 thing and the rage and uselessness that comes with being unemployed… you get protests.
On Saturday night, we were deployed to stand watch over the Lincoln Memorial. Our leaders had intel that there might be a riot here.
CBP officers stood elbow to elbow with agents from other branches of the Federal Government.
Around 5 PM, as I stood in the humidity of the D.C. swamp, there was only a scattering of people milling about. Whispering to Fireplug, I said, “Maybe we’ll have another quiet night.”
He turned his head to look at me. “What are you, some sort of pussy? I wanna crack some skulls!”
The guy on the other side of me laughed. “That’s right! We’re here to kick ass and take names.”
It must’ve been somewhere around 7 pm when I began to hear chanting in the distance. The chants turned to yells, then screams of rage.
Our Sergeant ran by and tapped several of us on the shoulder. “You guys, come with me!”
We ran east across the Mall, dodging peaceful protesters until we could no longer move forward due to the press of humanity before us.
“Push through, men!” the Sergeant yelled.
Fireplug, using what was no doubt excessive force, used his shield to open up a path.
Before we knew what was happening, protesters closed in on our position. We were just a few hundred feet from the Washington Monument, where more Federal Police waited. If we could only get there, we might be safe…
I lost sight of my companions. For protection I had only my shield and club, plus a can of pepper spray attached to my belt.
Protesters completely surrounded me, standing silently in the early evening twilight. Dropping the club, I grabbed the pepper spray and held it in a defensive position. Time came to a standstill. I slowly circled and looked into the faces of the people who stood before me. Nearly everyone wore a mask to block the still-rampant COVID-19 infection. Most were black or brown, but some were white. I even saw a couple of Asians. The tension between them and me was palatable. The mob began to press in tighter, yet no one said a word.
Just as I thought they would begin to turn on me, the crowd parted. A middle-aged black woman emerged and looked me over.
“Well whaddya know? It’s Soldier Boy from the other night.”
It was the same woman who’d spoken to me the other night as I stood watch in Layfayette Square.
She paused to look over the others. Some looked as if they were just seconds from violence.
“Kneel with me, Soldier Boy. Show us you have a heart.”
Tears began to stream from my eyes as this woman stood before me. I reflected on who I was and why I was standing in this spot, alone and scared. I was neither a bully nor a killer.
“Take my hands,” she directed. I released my grip on the pepper spray and let it fall to the ground. Her small yet strong hands grasped mine. She looked me in the eyes. “Now kneel with me.”
Sobbing like a child, I felt my knee rest in the soft lawn. I looked at the people whom I’d thought to be adversaries who were all kneeling with me. We weren’t adversaries at all – we were Americans.
Kneeling for George Floyd.
Kneeling for each other.
Kneeling for peace.
Copyright 2020 D. Cornell